Analyzing This

A police department in Kansas is mixing crime-analysis skills with common sense.

by / September 30, 1999 0
Of all the new technologies being applied in the justice arena, perhaps only crime analysis and mapping draws from and reaches into so many areas of municipal government. Surprisingly, such a system, which provides many rewards to all parts of municipal government, is relatively easy and inexpensive to build.

When a police department decides to set up a crime-analysis unit, their base maps are drawn from planning and utilities departments. Inevitably, the data gathered cycles back to city council chambers and the mayor's office.

One example is Overland Park, Kan., a rapidly growing suburb of Kansas City, Mo. The city's crime-analysis unit, only about 6 years old, has been key to cracking jewelry-theft cases several hundred miles away and explaining the impact of new business projects within the city.

The foundation was laid in 1993, when Chief John Douglas, then the department's deputy police chief , became convinced that a major overhaul was needed in the way the department approached crime and community issues.

The city was under pressure, with a large influx of new residents fleeing Kansas City and a burgeoning workday population drawn by new job opportunities in the upscale community. The city now boasts a resident population of 138,000 -- with a daytime population of over 200,000 -- and is home to many large businesses, including Sprint's new international headquarters.

To meet the challenges of growth with a department consisting of 200 sworn officers and a civilian staff of 75, Douglas set out to build a crime-analysis and mapping unit that would help guide department decisions.

What he didn't realize was that he was taking the first step toward building a unit that would draw law enforcement from all over the country, hoping to pattern their success after Overland's.

Humble Beginnings

As a first step, Gerald Tallman was hired to build the unit. He started off with a lot of moral support and little more.

"When it started out, it was just Gerry and a 286. Now this team just keeps making me look better and better," said Captain Glenn Ladd, crime-analysis supervisor. "Either they're putting out great data or there's just so much of it no one can tell."

The team now consists of Tallman, assistant crime analysts Susan Wernicke and Jamie May, and five committed civilian volunteers. Tallman's old 286 is nowhere to be seen.

The team now runs maps, bulletins and statistical reports using seven 450 MHz Pentium III PCs. Those reports are accessible in-house, and crime bulletins are faxed regularly to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in Kansas and Missouri.

Much of the team's work is produced with off-the-shelf software like Microsoft Excel, Word, Outlook, Power Point and FoxPro -- helping to keep costs down -- while their raw data is drawn from the department's server. But it's not hard for Tallman to look back.

"I was given a broad mission statement and a free reign; not much else," he said. "For the first six months, I don't even remember having a computer. I just researched and networked. I called cities all over the country to talk about what they were doing.

"Then I went to Colorado Springs, and spent three days with their unit. Next, it was a vendor fair -- I had them flying in from all over to pitch their wares, but nothing I saw did everything we wanted. Finally, after looking at FoxPro, Lotus and Access, I settled on FoxPro as our software base."

Helping to cement the decision was the fact that the crime-analysis program that Tallman found -- from the Institute for Police Technology and Management (IPTM) -- was written in FoxPro. Still, even IPTM's program was not as user-friendly or versatile as needed.

Tallman negotiated to purchase the source code from IPTM, a $2,000 investment, and then hired a local consultant to revamp the program. That cost about another $5,000. But, in the end, the department's crime-analysis unit had a user-friendly program they named Target Crime Analysis.

Reversal of Fortunes

In the five-and-a-half years since Tallman was searching the country for technology and application ideas, the tables have turned. In addition to local publicity, the department's use of crime mapping was included in a recently published book and highlighted at a national crime-mapping conference.

From this and word of mouth, the unit now receives calls and visits from departments as far away as Jamaica. The information and opportunities the crime-analysis unit provides are now being accessed by detectives, who went through a one-hour training class to learn how to utilize the software to create their own maps and reports.

Patrol officers can access, on a view-only basis, all crimes committed in their area during the 48 hours prior to their shift. In addition, the crime-analysis unit has provided information to the chief, City Council and community members to support informed decision-making.

Officers and civilians at all levels of the department enthusiastically endorse the crime-analysis unit and the information it produces. Regular crime bulletins help information sharing across the department's two police districts, and at least one sergeant said he likes to turn to the unit when he thinks he sees a crime pattern developing. In several situations, the ability to spot a pattern has paid dividends.

When the unit noticed a string of construction-site burglaries involving heavy machinery -- another problem associated with the city's high growth rate -- the unit's information led to erecting roadblocks on major thoroughfares. In addition to apprehending the thieves and recovering the stolen property, the roadblocks also led to tickets issued for safety and motor-vehicle violations.

In another situation, the unit picked up on a scam an elderly, well-dressed gentleman was running on shopping-mall jewelry stores. He would come in, ask to see several high-dollar items and then, when the clerk was distracted, take off with everything he could grab.

The unit issued a bulletin through its network, a copy of which ended up in Columbia, Mo., a two-and-a-half hour drive away. Columbia police officers saw the bulletin and caught the elderly suspect, who had decided to run his scam a little farther from home.

Civil Benefits

Perhaps as telling as the numerous criminal trends the unit has helped stop is the role the unit has played in delivering information to the community. When an entertainment complex -- including a bowling alley, night club and family restaurant -- was proposed, neighborhood activists protested, believing the establishment would inevitably lead to crime.

The City Council turned to the unit for data. After some research, the unit presented information showing that the planned use of the land, based on other examples in the community, created fewer crime problems than almost any other use possible. In another instance, the unit's analysis led to increased support from the police chief.

"We had a group of people going to City Council meetings complaining that the department was not writing enough tickets to slow down speeders and stop-sign runners in their neighborhood. They felt that outsiders were using their community as a race track," explained Tallman. "The department stepped up patrols in the area and plotted the tickets for several weeks -- locations, speed, who the speeders were -- and at the next council meeting the chief was able to throw up this flip chart and say, 'Talk to your neighbors. They're the one's that we catch speeding there.'"

As with technology in police departments nationwide, the system is not always used to its full potential. Some officers still complain that the system is too complex. A few keep a tight grip on their pencil and paper, eschewing all things technological. Most, though, either utilize the system themselves or at least lean on the unit to provide needed data.

"This is about officer safety and serving the community, and we are doing that," said assistant analyst Wernicke. "Other agencies, we've noticed, won't even have their own data handy, but they use ours -- and Kansas City patterned their unit after what we are doing. It's a good feeling."


Justice and Technology Editor Ray Dussault is also a research director for the Law Enforcement Technology Acquisition Project. E-mail